John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

On Providing Learning Support for the Students You Actually Have

Appeared in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, MARCH 28, 2016
On Providing Learning Support for the Students You Actually Have
By John N. Gardner

I was quoted in a recent commentary in The Chronicle by Ashley Thorne, and while the quote was accurate, it was used to describe a point of view that I definitely do not hold. In the name of many thousands of faculty, staff, and administrators who dedicate themselves to what has become known as “student success” or “college success” work, I must disavow this point of view inaccurately attributed to me.

The essay was titled “Students Will Rise When Colleges Challenge Them to Read Good Books,” and I agree that this is one component of the beginning college experience that can contribute to student success. But it is just one of many necessary components. The real issue is what constitutes “good books” — titles being advocated by the National Association of Scholars, of which Thorne is executive director, or those selected by campus committees overseeing many “common reading” or “summer reading” programs.

Thorne quoted me as follows: “Plan for the students you actually have, not those you wish you had, or think you used to have, or think you used to be like.” I did make that statement in a presentation at a recent national conference on the first-year experience. And I stand by it.

Before the essay’s publication, Thorne extended to me the professional courtesy of attempting to confirm the quote in question. I provided her not only with the precise wording of what I had said, but also with the context for my statement, as follows: “Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the quote alone lacks the context for the statement. To be sure, I was not saying we shouldn’t aspire to have better students. I was speaking to the reality of the current demographics of U.S. higher education and the fact that many institutions do not align their policies and practices to the students they actually have — and that in turn leads to higher failure and attrition rates.” Thorne chose to ignore that context.

She went on to interpret my comments by writing, “In other words, be realistic; don’t expect too much of students.” I did not make or imply that statement, and it in no way represents my opinion. I do not know any serious academic or college-success professional today who would argue that we should expect little of students. To the contrary, the entire first-year-experience movement, of which I am a founder, and many other powerful undergraduate-reform initiatives have been focused on raising expectations for college students and institutions.

Most students attending colleges today are not those for whom American higher education was originally designed. I firmly believe that there is a direct correlation between what we expect of our students and what we get. We know that higher expectations generate greater learning. But we also know that higher expectations alone are not sufficient. Greater learning also results from support — support that can be provided, for example, by college-success courses in which common readings are often used.
Thorne argues that those of us responsible for the first year, especially those of us who select common readings, choose to “dumb down reading lists” and have a prevailing attitude of “resignation and low expectations.” As one who has spent nearly 50 years working with colleagues from hundreds of institutions, that is not my experience.

Ashley Thorne and I would probably agree on more than we disagree. I respect her calling for higher standards. I respect her pursuit of what she would regard as “excellence” in undergraduate education. We both want “better” students.

But, she argues, “the choices colleges make drip with condescension.” The colleges I see, in contrast, are significantly ramping up their offering of “high-impact practices,” out of both respect and concern for their students. They do not condescend; they admire the students’ courage, motivation, resilience, and drive to overcome enormous obstacles that privileged white men like me never had to encounter.

Most students attending colleges today are not those for whom American higher education was originally designed, and the first-year-experience movement has been working to adapt our colleges to the students they actually have. We believe and we see that students can and do become “better” when we provide them with “challenge and support,” to use the phrase of the 1960s-era psychologist Nevitt Sanford.

Where I think many first-year educators disagree with the National Association of Scholars is not the importance of challenge but the importance and extent of support given students whose levels of preparation provided by America’s public schools are unequal and inadequate. And, admittedly, we also disagree about what we would have our students read and think about. A college degree is needed more than ever for upward social mobility and for the opportunity to appreciate the kinds of “good” books that Thorne argues we should be providing.

Colleges are microcosms of our larger society; thus, academics represent different belief systems about what constitutes good books, good standards, and good practices. I know that if the work on increased success for all students is to have even greater impact, we need all points of view in our tent. I need to consider the views of the National Association of Scholars and how those views might help make students more successful.

I and thousands of other college-success advocates have strived to put together partnerships with colleagues from all points of view in the academy. We must all work together to address the enormous challenges of helping students “rise.” So I hope we we can join together to seek common ground instead of impugning the standards and belief systems of our colleagues.

John N. Gardner is president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education and a distinguished professor emeritus and senior fellow at the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

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